Emilie Rhys

Live Music Visual Artist

January 23, 2017


How old are you?


Where are you from originally?

New York City.

How long have you been in New Orleans?

Five years this time. I lived here before. My dad lived here in 1959. He was an artist and he left the family when I was a baby and came down here and started a whole new life. I didn’t know him at all, I met him when I was 20. I came down here and lived with him. That was in 1977.

What kind of artist was your father?

He did all kinds of things, kind of like me. One of the things he was very famous for was his work with Preservation Hall musicians.

How did your art evolve from the time you left New Orleans to when you returned?

It had a lot to do with his response to my work. When you said, “Would you like to be a part of The Sexism Project?” I said “Yay! I get to talk about the monster known as my father.” He was a major sexist and a major misogynist and he tried to destroy my talent. He tried to destroy any ability that I might have to be an artist in the future and that’s why I left. I loved New Orleans and New Orleans loved me. But after ten months of being around my dad, I had to get out of here. I would not have survived.

How did your father stifle your art?

He told me that I had no hopes of ever being a great artist because I have the wrong hormones. That’s what he said. “Women simply cannot be great at anything because they have the wrong hormones, they don’t have the right temperament.” And that wasn’t unusual given that it was 1967. There were a lot of men who seriously thought women should stay in the home and that’s it. I don’t even think at that point many mothers or young women had even owned property on their or even had a checking account. A lot of women couldn’t do any of that. In a book about my dad’s work with Preservation Hall, he talks about how he doesn’t think jazz couldn’t be developed in a way that he felt made it classical—which I also think he’s wrong about. He says, “We’ve had two centuries at least to attempt to come up with a classical music. It’s like saying women have not had a chance. Well, they’ve had at least three centuries of more leisure than the breadwinner. Structurally, women may be more intelligent. In my experience they are, more so than men, whom I find often rather stupid. But women have too many glands to cope with and they cannot sit in a room for 35 years like Cezanne and develop a concept in absolute isolation. That’s why they’re not Shakespeares. That’s why they’re not Beethovens or Rembrandts. They may hit the secondary level, perhaps, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Madame Curie. But they don’t get to that first level because they can’t have first level isolation and still remain a woman. It’s not possible for them.” That was the attitude he had when he looked at me. Here was this kid with no training and no support system showing up and with bright eyes looking at everything he did and I think he saw it as a threat. I think he saw that I had raw talent and with a little bit of nurturing I might really blossom and he wanted to just stamp that out.

Do you think that’s what led to you leaving?

I know it did. I would’ve stayed here. I was working at Jackson Square in an era when there was an incredible amount of really good portrait artists of a high quality. I started doing that and frankly, I was so good, I attracted crowds. I was making money and over fist over and throwing it under the rug in my bedroom at my dad’s house. Things were starting to happen but with my dad, it was all derision. He had increasingly violent attempts to crush my spirit and final and I had enough. I got away from all that and struggled for a long time to figure out what my worth was. What could I produce given a nature that was interiorized and very reclusive. Which is ironic because I come to New Orleans and what do I do? You can come from the most extreme levels of sexism and a lack of support in your personal world and fight back against it and become incredibly strong. I wouldn’t recommend it. To be born into that situation? I wouldn’t want that for anyone. But all that struggle that I had to go through perhaps made for a much stronger individual than I may have been. I don’t know if anyone could ever know for sure because we can never go backwards in time. It’s impossible. If I had nurturing parents would I have been an artist or did I become an artist because I didn’t?

In what capacity would you consider yourself a part of the music community of New Orleans?

I consider myself a part of the behind the scenes world. I am part of the audience clearly because I am a music lover. But there’s a big part of me that’s there as a professional and from the very beginning there were musicians who recognized that. They said, “You’re one of us. There’s something different about you than other artists who show up.” They get up on stage and can’t leave. Once I’m in my station and start drawing I am committed to those drawings and I don’t leave until I’m exhausted. I’m not taking photographs and then bringing them to my studio and working off of them. This painting is of Charlie Gabriel from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and he came and posed for this about five times. People come to the studio and we spend the time together. They decide how they’re going to pose. We wait, we talk, I see what they’re doing. Charlie came in, sat down, held his clarinet and he didn’t have to say a word, I knew that was it.

One of the statements you made reminded me of how I approach my photos. Whatever is happening, that’s what I’m trying to capture. And I work within that. I get creative within my own style. But people ask me if the lighting is ok and it doesn’t matter. I want the lighting to stay how it is. I’d rather it be a challenge for myself than the artist adjust what they’re doing and worry about me. When I’m shooting, I would much rather people not speak to me unless I speak to them first. I’ve snapped at people on accident before but I just want to be in the moment. However I am feeling is how I want somebody else to feel when they look at that photo. I don’t know if I have been successful at that yet but I’m trying to get there. We talked about this a little bit but do you remember being told or taught anything growing up about the behavioral expectations for you as a woman?

I remember lots of things. There were regular questions like “Aren’t you married yet? Aren’t you going to have children? When are you having children?” Those are normal things that a lot of people say. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about that.” Things like that. Constant references to the seriousness to which you’re approaching things as wrong. That’s insane. I was always an intense kid. I was always the kid who hung out in the book stacks. I was always the kid who hungered for more knowledge and more understanding. And that was not something that was considered typical behavior for a girl.

Can you define sexism as it presents itself to you?

Minimizing. That’s all you need to know. It minimizes everything that you are and everything you’re trying to do. Before you can even figure out what that is, you’re being put down. It’s minimizing. Some of these things we can just laugh off, others cut to the core.

How does being treated in a sexist way make you feel?

Not good. I don’t think one should have to fight just to think deep thoughts or fight to look at things in a darker way. I do associate that with sexism. Anything that has depth or darkness is considered not appropriate for a girl. That’s what I was told by at least one person when I was very young. The esteemed life for a female was marriage and children and if they did have any leisure or if their family was of any wealth, then they were to play piano beautifully, they were to sing, they were to do pretty watercolors. But if they got seriously interested in it as an art form? That was wrong. I don’t know if you know but Mozart’s sister, Nannerl, is considered by scholars to have been as great or of even greater talent than he was. They were child prodigies together but she was crushed. She was a composer but she had no opportunities and she ended up unhappily married and isolated. It’s just a miserable tail. Mozart himself said he believed she was a great talent but there was something set up in their era for not much to happen for her. And it was a great disappointment for me as a young artist to realize that what I was undergoing was very old and many of the exact same problems were still in place.

Do you recall any specific occasions or experiences when you experienced sexist behavior against you that may have stuck with you?

It’s just the general feeling that women are judged more for their looks and what they wear. I put on a uniform because I realized I couldn’t be concerned about how I looked while I do my work here. I needed to have an outfit that would work in all situations that I didn’t have to worry about.

It sounds like a photographer’s vest.

I feel very much like an art warrior. And that’s not typical behavior for a girl in the old way of thinking. I think today is very different. But for somebody from my generation that is somewhat unusual in terms of being in the arts and thinking of yourself that way. I certainly never had and it was an eye-opener to realize that having fun with shoes and jewelry was gone. That’s how I feel about my uniform. It spares all kind of time out of the day that might have been spent on thought processes about clothing.

Do you mean because female fashion includes items that are less functional?

Yes. I don’t wear any jewelry. Even when I can I forget because when I’m working I can’t. There have been many times when the band ended at 2:30 in the morning and I would have to walk so fast and scared because you just don’t know who’s lurking out there and the awful things that could happen. I was lucky nothing ever happened but I thought the last thing I need is to be having a glint of jewelry anywhere. Somehow I just knew that if I had anything of that sort of instant value anywhere, it would be a problem.

Are there any particular stereotypes of men or of women that just drive you insane?

I think the stereotype of the male as the hero savior of women. Women are a lot stronger than anyone who ascribes to that stereotype believes. I think is a very dangerous stereotype to believe in. That’s kind of what we have for president right now. He is somebody who believes that he is the shining knight in white armor and he’s going to save us. He’s 70 but I think there are also young men who think that and there are young women who believe that if only they find that guy then somehow life would be much better. I’m a firm believer that you’ve got to make for yourself 100% of what you need in life. You just cannot depend on anyone else. That certainly does come from my experience—how can you count on parents who are trying to smash you down? I am tough and so stubborn and so resilient and so strong. I am a titan.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

I think it’s a great project that you’re doing and I can’t wait to see what’s going to come of it. I’d love to be able to read and hear other people’s statements.